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'It's had a lasting impact': students on being bullied over their accents

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

A Guardian investigation has found widespread evidence of students being ridiculed over their accents and backgrounds at some of the country’s leading universities. Here, students past and present reflect on their experiences:

‘It made feel like I did not belong’

Nina White, 26, from Stockton-on-Tees, studied English and theatre at the University of Warwick

“It sounds ridiculous, but I only realised I had what people regarded as a strong regional accent when I first began my undergraduate studies. Mocking of my accent was immediate and I was shocked at the perceptions of people from the north-east. The perception of me was that if I had a drink I would become aggressive and scrappy, and this was all because I was from the north. I am neither of those things.

“One flatmate once asked me in genuine amazement: ‘You have BBC up where you’re from?’ I had to laugh, but looking back this moment neatly encapsulated the social position that many people imagined northern towns to be in. These little experiences made me feel like I did not belong at my university, that I’d gotten there by mistake. A feeling of otherness, imposter syndrome.

“Fellow students expressed incredulity that I had made it top of the class in my first year. This incredulity rubbed off on me. Even when I graduated with first-class honours I was certain that I would never want to return to a university again.

“Two years later, after living in another northern city, I had recovered my confidence and started my master’s at the University of Liverpool. Here, I felt none of that regional prejudice, neither at work nor in my studies.

“At Teesside University, where I am completing a PhD, there is a huge proportion of local students and staff too, which is so refreshing and reassuring. Here I am no different. I am at home.”

‘The way students talked about me was truly intolerable’

Christopher Burden, 24, from the Black Country, studied modern languages at the University of Birmingham

“My experience of university was a constant barrage of abuse from students and staff who were verbally disapproving of my mild but noticeable Black Country accent. This manifested itself in various ways. Staff on more than one occasion said ‘we don’t normally get your type here’ or ‘perhaps you could try and fit in’. The staff were completely misguided, but with students it was different.

“Broadly, my course was made up of people who failed to get into Oxford or Cambridge, so there was an elitist atmosphere as many of them had been to school at places like Eton and Harrow. I went to a regular comprehensive in Wolverhampton and this seemed really unusual to them.

“After peer-assessed presentations I became very used to negative feedback where they would say they couldn’t understand me. Students would also regularly announce that they didn’t want to work with me because I would somehow bring down their grade because of my background.

“It feels weird to talk about bullying as an adult, but ultimately the way students talked about me, dreaded having me in a presentation group and otherwise judged me for being working class was truly intolerable at times.

“The whole demoralising episode has had a lasting impact. It knocked my confidence and I began trying to hide my accent. I have always been proud of where I am from but the kind of people that mocked me at university are the kind of people that will be recruiters for jobs . It has inhibited me, definitely.

“I am gay and if anyone makes homophobic remarks towards me it is considered illegal, but if someone is classist I can’t say anything because it is not a protected characteristic – yet it is still abuse.”

‘I can still here her clipped RP echoing in my ears’

Rachel Drew
Rachel Drew. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Rachel Drew, 35, from Scarborough, studied drama and theatre arts at Edinburgh University

“‘You’ll never get anywhere talking like that, it makes you sound stupid. You need to try and flatten your Yorkshire accent.’ That was a member of staff in my third year of university. I tried to not to cry, and sort of managed, crumbling completely when I left the room. What could I say to that? They must be right. They knew what they were talking about.

“My experience at university had generally been fantastic. Obviously I got a ribbing from my peers about words like purple, bus or murder, but you sort of expect that anywhere outside of the region. Pals were playful. Maybe that’s why that one session with that tutor always stands out in my mind. I can still hear her clipped received pronunciation echoing in my ears.

“‘When you use “like” in sentences, you sound like a teenager. No one will take you seriously.’ I didn’t argue. I should have argued. Instead I gave them too much sway and tried to follow their instruction. My accent completely changed during my four years at university, flattening back immediately when I was welcomed home. It’s really hard to speak when your voice will put you at the back of the intellectual queue. Now, 13 years later, although I do catch myself saying ‘like’ all the time, I try to let that anger charge me rather than choke me.”

‘I remember feeling overwhelmingly exposed’

Emily Northorpe, 23, from South Tyneside, studied English literature at Durham University

“It’s a strange experience to be in a northern city with a northern accent but to be in the minority or to feel embarrassed about it. I remember remarks people made about being sick of hearing northern accents when they were out and about in town. The feeling of ridicule or judgment would be particularly noticeable in academic settings like seminars or tutorials.

“I purposefully did not speak out of fear, despite having done all the preparatory reading. It can be such a debilitating feeling when you want to join in the debate and offer analysis but you daren’t because you’re worried, not about what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it. My anxiety would ripple through my body if a tutor called on me for my opinion. There would be a look or a smirk from the other students and I just remember feeling overwhelmingly exposed.

“It tainted my whole experience of being at university and made me completely go into my shell. I would become mute in social situations and academic settings. To be the odd one out in a place that was very close, geographically, to my family home was so strange.”

‘What will it be like in the workplace?’

Olivia Allen, 18, from Birmingham, is studying politics, sociology and Russian at the University of Exeter

“Since moving down south a month ago I can think of at least 10 occasions when my accent, being a relatively strong one from Birmingham, has been brought up and mocked in conversation. Most notably, my peers in politics modules specifically have said they’d never have guessed I’d want to take a subject like politics, and that I should speak more eloquently if I want to be taken seriously.

“I got three A*’s and one A in my A-levels, and nothing below an A equivalent in my GCSEs. I shouldn’t have to speak more eloquently to be listened to when I know the worth of what I’m saying regardless of my accent.

“I’ve lived in Birmingham my whole life and I’m not ashamed of the accent I have. I’ve had people make assumptions about my intelligence, family background and financial situation based on nothing but the way I speak, and while I know they’re unfounded, I still can’t believe this is something I’m dealing with at all.

“I have always been quite self-confident but this has made me think. If this is what is happening at university, what will it be like going forward, in the workplace? Will I be judged on factors that I can’t control?